Showing the Dead[*]
On the Internet, there are galleries with photos of stillborn children. Hundreds of pictures of dead babies are presented in rows.
Like gravestones, these photos are inscribed with the names of the dead babies, their dates of birth and death the same. Most of the pictures show only the faces of the babies. The dead bodies are wrapped in soft white clothing, and they usually wear a wool cap. Often their faces are stained, discoloured, sometimes pocked with pustules and swellings, and their eyes are always closed.
The small dead lie in cradles or on a bed, usually alone. Often a teddy bear is lying next to them, and sometimes the photos are digitally modified, showing their place of rest as clouds.
One clicks through the pictures, almost not daring to breathe, frame by frame, sequential, silent, still.
The collections of these pictures of the dead leave you speechless, and they are speechless themselves, because in fact you can hardly form words about a dead new-born; one cannot talk about them, one cannot praise their character traits nor recount stations in their lives. One can only show them. The image is their only obituary.
The publication of photos of stillborn babies on the Internet may at first seem strange, but it certainly represents a medial place of mourning which is being claimed more and more often. Providing a photo of the dead child to the public obviously favours the parents’ process of recognising their child as dead, and thus also of embracing a self-conception of the mother or father of a dead child – and, being only one of many parents on the respective website, not being ashamed of it.
The photographs of the dead infants testify to something incomprehensible, something oppressively inexpressible, which the parents are willing to accept by showing their little dead children bravely, quietly, with the gesture of voluntary acceptance. A gesture created by the new media.
Post-mortem photography makes death real. It keeps it alive, makes us confront it, and, of course, serves as a reminder of the dead at the same time. If a child is stillborn, hospital staff often recommend taking pictures of the infant as a memento.
It is only recently that photos of stillborn babies have been collectively archived and displayed. Taking pictures of dead adults, however, is as old as photography itself. It was certainly common in the 19th and early 20th century; post-mortem photography, today largely forgotten, was at that time an accepted photographic genre. Its precursors were the ancient death masks, as well as painted memorial portraits which first began in the Renaissance: first only religious dignitaries and the nobility were captured, and later commoners also adopted the practise. The genre of memorial portraiture reached its peak simultaneously with post-mortem photography in the 19th century. However, improved hygiene regulations led to a ban of post-mortem photography in the cities at the end of the 19th century due to the risk of infection. Additionally, increasing industrialisation of funeral services removed death progressively from sight, leading to the disappearance of those genres.
Today we prefer to remember the dead with photographs of the deceased while still alive. The virtual cemetery culture on the Internet in particular denies the dead body; here, post-mortem photography seems to be a taboo – with the exception of just those cases where there is no other option; with the exception of photos of the stillborn.
In the spring of 2009, a book with over 50 large format photographs of a dying and, later, dead child appeared: Chiara – Eine Reise ins Licht (A Journey into the Light). The photographs were taken by the Swiss artist and photographer Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi (*1957). Chiara was her daughter.
In November 1999 the five-year-old girl was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The tumour was inoperable, and radiation was not possible; the chemotherapy sessions were unsuccessful. As Chiara’s condition deteriorated in April 2000, the parents moved with her to the Ita Wegman Clinic in Arlesheim, where Chiara died in September 2000. During that period her mother took more than 400 portraits of her. Those she selected to place in the publication that appeared nine years later directly confront us with the girl’s process of dying. They show Chiara lying in bed, a bed of pillows and blankets. All photographs are kept in soft pastel colours, which give an impression of mildness. Chiara’s mouth is open; from image to image her face becomes whiter, more transparent, more ethereal, more spherical. One seems to be able to see her life fading. “The fact that the images are getting lighter reflects how I perceived Chiara’s process of dying,” says Zahnd Legnazzi. Sometimes soft toys and flowers can be seen in the pictures, but Chiara seems not to perceivethem. Rather perhaps they are a small consolation for the viewer – they show that the terminally ill child was not left alone.
I flip through the book repeatedly as if I were learning the photographs by heart. I am especially captured by Chiara’s gaze, because this gaze, it seems, is no longer of this world.
Often the girl’s eyes are closed, and when open, they are not looking at the photographer, nor at the camera, but past it to a non-definable place, apparently somewhere in the distance. In the preface of the book we are told that in the course of the disease Chiara became blind. So we are faced with a double uncertainty: seeking the glance of a blind person is always somewhat disturbing, because of the vague impression that they may still see a bit, and because they may perceive something quite different, something that the seeing have no access to. Tiresias, the great prophet of antiquity, was blind; the blind do not see nothing, but another reality. Because of Chiara’s deadly disease we are even more tempted to say her wavering gaze is already ‘there’.
Her gaze has departed though she is alive: Chiara does not see anymore that she is photographed and watched, and whoever looks at her does not see where she is.
The book Chiara radiates a great, reverent silence. That the dead body is not omitted is almost natural: “In the end it was just part of it to also portray her dead.” Zahnd Legnazzi points out that breaking taboos about the process of dying was a particular concern for her when publishing the images.
One of the earliest historical pieces of evidence of a painter, who painted his own dead child in an attempt to understand its death, has been handed down by the artist/biographer Vasari. In his Vite (1550), Vasari recounts that the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli (ca. 1445-1523) had his dead son be undressed and laid out, and “with the greatest firmness of soul, without shedding a tear, painted a portrait of him, so that whenever he desired, he could behold through the work of his own hands what nature had given him and adverse fortune had taken away.” When artists are directly confronted with death, be it because someone in their immediate environment dies or they themselves become seriously ill, they do what they do best – use their camera or paint, write or compose. It is their way to deal with death, to touch it, to make it capable of depiction and communication. The artistic perception and articulation of death is therefore a means of coping with the mortification of survival, with the feeling of powerlessness, the helplessness of the spectator and of those who are left behind, and to deal with it actively and creatively.
Post-mortem pictures of adults, who have lived a narratable life, offer those who have known them or read about them the possibility to at least make a picture of their lives for themselves, and to see their death in this respect. With children, who have had so little life, it is more difficult, and with stillborn children it is quite impossible. Thus photographs of stillborn babies or Chiara appear more radical to us, because death itself comes to the fore, inevitably and seemingly inexcusable.
One of the most prominent examples from art history with regard to the depiction of death and dying are the many images of the dying Valentine Godé Darel. The mistress of Ferdinand Hodler was, since the beginning of their acquaintance in 1908, a model for the artist, who at that time was married in a second marriage with Berthe Jacques. When she developed cancer a few years later, the artist captured her illness and process of dying (1914/15) for many months in approximately seventy portrait studies and portraits, and even her corpse served as a model for various studies.
A similar example are the photos of the sick and dead Susan Sontag (1933-2004), published by the American star photographer Annie Leibovitz in 2006 in a volume entitled A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. Leibovitz and Sontag met in 1988 and the two had been long-standing partners. Susan Sontag suffered from breast cancer in the 1970s, and, resulting from her experience, wrote the well-known essay Illness as a Metaphor (1978); in the 1990s she had to cope with cancer a second time. In March 2004 she was eventually diagnosed with a deadly form of leukemia, of which she died in December of the same year. The book shows many photos of Sontag taken in the course of 15 years, on trips taken together and with family and friends. The pictures of her illness and death are not left out – Susan Sontag naked in the bathtub in 1992, covering her operated breast with one hand; in the hospital bed during chemotherapy in 1998, on the bier in 2004. The post-mortem photographs are twenty small images in a soft, yellow-golden light, showing various sections of the dead body – the folded hands, the face, the upper body, the mouth, the shoes. Sontag wears an ankle-long dress by Fortuny which Leibovitz selected as a mortuary dress. On the skin of the exposed right forearm spots are visible.
David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag, published a book in 2008 in which he describes the last months of his mother. To Annie Leibovitz he refers only twice, briefly, unfriendly, criticising her “carnival images of celebrity death” and even states, curt and without supporting reasoning, that his mother was “humiliated posthumously”. These seem to be the words of a wounded son, who seeks to push away his mother’s lover.
The Dead for all
Should one be allowed to photograph the dead, and should one be allowed to make such photographs available to others? Who may take such pictures and who may not, who is to watch over the pictures of the dead?
Who owns the dead?
Today there are few examples in which post-mortem photographs do not – as carefully formulated as it may be – draw criticism, as voiced by David Rieff against Leibovitz in his book. The photographer Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi must also put up with the question if “as an artist she was profiting from the death of her child.”
It is about dignity: it is important to retain the dignity of a personality, their integrity, even in the representation of their death. Annie Leibovitz has in turn given a simple definition of what constitutes the dignity of the photos taken during Susan Sontag’s illness as well as her post-mortem photographs: “The fact that it came out of a moment of grief gave the work dignity.” Yet dignity is not a fixed term. It is always negotiable and subject to historical and cultural developments and changes. Not in all cases can the experienced pain guarantee dignity, and one could also consider if it isn’t possible to take dignified photos of the dying or the dead while not being personally involved through the bonds of family or love.
A dead infant cannot decide whether or not their image should be published on the Internet; similarly, Valentine Godé-Darel, Susan Sontag, and Chiara have not themselves allowed us to look at their dead faces. Instead parents and loved ones decide on their behalf; photographers like Leibovitz and Zahnd Legnazzi are among those who have made the decision, and who eventually confront us with their work to say: Look here. This “look here” is a call to a double recognition: it is the traditional sense of memento mori: we are forced to look the death of another in the eye and be reminded that sooner or later we have to face it, too. And it is an act of remembering the distinctive, individual dead person.
Are you now searching for the photographs of stillborn babies on the net, or do you want to see pictures of Susan Sontag? If someone feels a certain desire to see post-mortem photographs, it should not be put on par with sensationalism, because our culture may have weaned us from the dead. Too strong piety can lead to displacement.
My Post-Mortem Photograph in Kathmandu
In Hinduism, the dead are traditionally burned in the open air while the cremation sites are shielded in different ways; sometimes it is also possible for strangers to watch.
Around the turn of the year 2007/2008, I travelled to northern India and Nepal. Although I had already been in India before I had until then never attended a cremation. On this trip, I had the visits of two cities, which are known for their cremations, on my program: Varanasi and Kathmandu. To be able to die in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, which is located at the Ganges, is for a Hindu considered lucky: who dies here, it is said, can break out of the cycle of rebirth. When devout Hindus sense their death is near they find, if possible, their way to this holy city.
On my first morning in Varanasi I get up very early. It is freezing and still pitch dark; with a group of other tourists I wander quietly through the dimly lit but already awakening old town where I’m confused about the many Swastikas that are painted on numerous doors as a bringer of luck, and I take a couple of photos of them. Upon our arrival at the banks of the river Ganges we board a boat to experience the famous river at sunrise. We ride out onto the river and in the light of the first rays of the sun we leisurely cruise along the shore where, after a short while, the first pyres appear. The dead are burned here around the clock, as if in shifts; the ashes are then handed over to the Ganges by the relatives. Signs onshore as well as the guide in our boat point out that photography is prohibited near this shore area. From the distance, you can see some pyres and also the relatives at the cremation site. Silently and slowly we go by. Varanasi exudes a religious austerity like no other Indian city. “If you want to look at a relaxed burning of the dead, you have to go to Kathmandu,” recommends our guide at the conclusion of our river trip, and a few days later in the Nepalese capital I find out what he meant by a "relaxed burning".
On the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu, right at the river Bagmati, one of the most important Shiva temples on the Indian subcontinent is located: the Pashupatinath Temple, whose foundation possibly dates back to the third Century B.C. On one bank of the temple site there are a number of pyres, to which one does not have direct access, but which are easily visible from the opposite shore since the width of the river is only about 15 meters. In contrast to Varanasi there is no prohibition from taking photographs, and tourists can film and take pictures to their heart’s content.
Around evening on my first day in Kathmandu I go to the temple site and take a walk in the wooded area, which is open to non-Hindu visitors. First, I deliberately stay away from the river with the cremation sites on the opposite shore, but I nevertheless keep looking at it from afar. Then I walk towards it just to change direction, only to turn around again and catch a clear view to the flames through the branches of the trees. I eventually get to the river, where I mingle with other tourists and, like them, I now look directly across it. A cremation seems to be well underway. Male relatives of the deceased perform their ablutions in the cold, dirty river (the women stay at home), while behind them the funeral pyre is burning; I cannot detect a corpse in the flames. In contrast to Varanasi no reverent silence prevails here, we speak in a normal volume, dogs are barking and children call around as usual. And of course, it hardly takes a minute until a young handsome Nepali offers himself as a guide. “I’ll explain the rituals for you,” he says, and I am unusually willing and nod immediately and listen to him with interest as he comments on the ablutions and other chores, and when he explains to me the respective cremation sites of the different castes. “Take a picture, take a picture,” he says repeatedly. I shake my head and smile reluctantly. It is unthinkable to me. I find the unabashed filming and picture taking of the tourists crude and uncultured.
The men of the mourning family are squatting beside the fire in small groups. They also walk around, talk to each other and now and then look over to us in an apparently casual and friendly way. They seem almost relaxed, there is no bustle, no tears, and no excessively sad and serious faces. “The situation seems to be relaxed,” I questioningly turn to my friendly guide. “Oh, yes, yes,” he smiles back, “very relaxed.” After an ablution, a family member, in all probability the first-born son of the dead person, tries to put on the traditional white mourning garments, obviously having difficulties with wrapping and lacing it. He is being tangled up, is starting anew and smilingly shakes his head. The tourists enjoy themselves and my guide grins, “he is not familiar with tradition”. As I pay the guide he again reminds me to “take a picture before leaving,” pointing at the opposite shore.
Over the next few days in Kathmandu, I return to this place every late afternoon. In these days I never see the beginning of a cremation, do not see how the body is brought and laid out, I do not see how the pyre is lit. But eventually I sit, and soon I become less curious and rather simply present. Almost immediately I feel comfortable here. I just seat myself there, look across to the opposite shore, watch tourists and am amused by the sadhus, who solemnly sit here on the ground with their metre-long braids and are photographed for money. I photograph neither them nor the happenings on the other side. I wave away approaching guides.
A trip into the backcountry of Nepal interrupts these visits. A few days later, I return to Kathmandu where I can spend another afternoon before flying back. Again, I go to the Pashupatinath Temple. This time I see a couple of young men preparing a cremation site in the area allocated to a lower caste: they carry wood, layer it row by row, and finally bring the body of an old man wrapped in white cloth and an overlying yellow blanket. They place him on the prepared woodpile. His face is exposed. Someone puts a piece of wood under his neck so that the upper body is slightly raised. All this takes place very slowly, step by step. Meanwhile the men circle the laid out body, then again they stand around, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking. Eventually someone puts a piece of wood in the dead’s mouth. A little later he lights it. And I will never forget the image that followed: an orange flame shoots out of the mouth, like a word bubble, a speech of fire, toward heaven, a picture of a mystical force such as I have almost never seen.
Without hesitation, I take out my small digital camera and press the shutter button once, twice, three times. For the first time in my life, I photograph a dead man.
Shortly thereafter, when the mouth is blackened, the men place another pile of wood on the legs of the corpse and cover the upper body and face with straw so that you cannot see the body anymore. I remain seated, continue to look, eat a pita bread and leaf through a guidebook. After an hour, the cremation still continuing, I get up and leave.
Translated by Renate Brown